Thursday, June 27, 2013

A taste of forest in a jar

Miniature pinecones on a Hazel Alder
As regards presents, this one was way up there.
I don’t exactly know what it is, except that it’s a bit of culinary heaven in a jar!
My friend and colleague Marina usually supplies me with all kinds of honey, mainly from her native Uzbekistan. But this time, she presented me with a small jar that looked like berry conserve or jam.
Marina was in a hurry. She just told me a friend got her this from Italy and she wanted me to taste it too. “Enjoy,” she said while running off to get to work on time.
What's left of my pinecones in syrup
When I got home that night and opened the lid, I discovered it was not berries in the red thick syrup, but miniature pinecones!
I tentatively dug in with a spoon, not sure whether I was supposed to eat them or not. But when I did, I was blown away.
I was actually eating miniature pinecones in syrup.
It was like taking a walk in the pine forests of Lebanon – tasting, smelling and hearing the forest with every chew.
It is so delicious and special that I kept digging my spoon in for another mouthful.
Luckily, I remembered to stop in time to have some left to take these pictures.
I am more of a city person. Pine forests remind me of being sent to Lebanon’s mountain resorts of Aley and Brummana when I was a child. I came to hate them for being exiled for the hustle and bustle of Beirut.
Pine forests and the continuous chirp of crickets surrounded both houses where I used to stay.
After the first taste of my delicacy, I asked one of my favorite food bloggers, Sally Prosser of My Custard Pie, if she knew anything about my little pinecones. She did not.
And for the first time, Google let me down too. There is a lot about miniature pinecones, but for decoration.
So, I really don’t know what they are. Are they from a pine tree, a Hemlock tree or a Hazel Alder? I have no idea.
Do you?
Feasting on my precious gift reminds me of when I re-read for the nth time Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name is Red.” I feel like I am reading, seeing and hearing the words. With my pine conserve it is tasting, smelling and hearing…

Thursday, June 20, 2013

World Refugee Day: Take 1 minute…

A refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality, and is unable to or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”
More people around the world are refugees or internally displaced than at any time since 1994, with the crisis in Syria having emerged as a major new factor in global displacement.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) annual Global Trends report released yesterday, ahead of World Refugee Day, shows that as at the end of 2012, more than 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement compared to 42.5 million at the end of 2011.
This includes 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum seekers, and 28.8 million people forced to flee within the borders of their own countries.
The report does not include the rise in those forced from their homes in Syria during the current year. Significant new internal displacement was seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria.
A full 55% of all refugees listed in UNHCR's report come from just five war-affected countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.
Afghanistan remained the world's biggest source of refugees, a position it has now held for 32 years, with 95% of Afghan refugees located in either Iran or Pakistan.
Somalis were the second biggest group of refugees in 2012, followed by Iraqis. Syrians were the fourth biggest group.
The figures do not, however, reflect the additional one million people who have fled Syria in the last six months.
Syrian refugees children (via
According to the UNHCR report conflict in Syria has "forced 647,000 people to flee mainly to neighboring countries. This was the largest annual exodus by a single refugee group since 1999, when more than 867,000 people fled Kosovo."
The number of internally displaced persons is at the highest level in more than 20 years, with the war in Syria leading to 4.25m Syrians being internally displaced.
The UN says if current trends persist, a further two million people will have left Syria by the end of this year.
It also found that developing countries now hosted 81% of the world's refugees, 11% more than a decade ago.
Children below age 18 make up 46% of all refugees. In addition, a record 21,300 asylum applications submitted during 2012 were from children who were unaccompanied or separated from their parents. This is the highest number of unaccompanied or separated children that UNHCR has recorded.
"These truly are alarming numbers. They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale and they reflect the difficulties of the international community in preventing conflicts and promoting timely solutions for them," said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and head of UNHCR.
The report highlights worrisome trends, including the rate at which people are being forced into situations of displacement. During 2012 some 7.6 million people became newly displaced, 1.1 million as refugees and 6.5 million as internally displaced people. This translates to a new refugee or internally displaced person every 4.1 seconds.
"Each time you blink another person is forced to flee," Guterres said.
Of 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR's mandate -- a further 4.9 million Palestinian refugees fall under the mandate of its sister-agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
A refugee will always yearn to return. The key to the abandoned home is often the symbol of that hope.
My uncle, until he died before returning to Palestine, kept the key to his Haifa home hanging next to the front entrance of his Beirut residence. He would bring the key down before Sunday lunch to make sure it wasn’t rusty or anything.
World Refugee Day is held every year on June 20 to recognize the resilience of forcibly displaced people throughout the world.
It was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.
This year, UNHCR continues its award-winning "1" campaign with its first ever personal fundraising. It asks us to Take 1 minute to support a family forced to flee.
On World Refugee Day 2013, the focus is on the impact of conflict on families through the theme of “1 Family Torn Apart by War is Too Many.” The spotlight is also on ways of helping those who are forced to flee to find safety, regain hope and rebuild their lives.
In 1 minute, a family can be torn apart by war, a child can be separated from his or her parents and a lifetime of work can be destroyed.
Yet in 1 minute, the world community can also act -- reuniting a family, protecting a child, providing shelter, UNHCR says.
Kinan's page at UNHCR site
My friend Kinan took “1” minute and set up a page to help on Facebook. He says: “Hi everyone. I've set up a donation page to help support ONE refugee family. Chip in whatever you can. As little as $17 can provide this family basic kitchen equipment so they could have some noms [food]. And a $50 will allow them to sleep nice and warm after they've had their noms. For them to have everything back – food, shelter, tent, etc – we need a total $670. So the little donations will pile up and we can do this!”
It takes 1 minute to lose everything... A Syrian refugee family (via UNHCR)
Often classified unfairly with economic migrants, refugees flee their country not for economic gain but to escape persecution, the risk of imprisonment and threats to their lives. They need a safe haven where they can recover from mental and physical trauma and rebuild their hopes for a better future.
The intolerance that is often at the root of internal displacement and refugee flows is also present in some of the countries refugees flee to. Instead of finding empathy and understanding, they are often met with mistrust or scorn.
The UN General Assembly, on 4 December 2000, adopted resolution 55/76 where it noted that 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) had agreed to have International Refugee Day coincide with Africa Refugee Day on 20 June. The General Assembly therefore decided that 20 June would be celebrated as World Refugee Day.
Ahead of the G8 meeting in Ireland earlier this week, Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children, made an appeal to world leaders to save the children of Syria to coincide with World Refugee Day.
“Time is running out for millions of children across Syria,” Miles said. “The G8 leaders must send a strong signal to the world that the appalling humanitarian crisis in the country and region is a global priority. Aid agencies like Save the Children can only reach 10% of people we aim to help inside Syria.
“We urgently need better access; we know that children are being tortured, have little medical help and have witnessed family members being killed in front of them. Families are resorting to digging for food.
“G8 leaders must insist that all parties to the conflict allow full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all areas of Syria, including across conflict lines and across borders from neighboring countries. We cannot wait for a negotiated solution before help arrives.”
Becoming a refugee is not a choice that is made easily or willingly. As such, refugees deserve and should be accorded the respect and dignity to rebuild their lives.
What is gone in 1 minute takes a lifetime to rebuild, if at all…

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sewing and cooking for Syria refugees

The tragedy of the Syria war... (photo via Rose Alhomsi or @tweet4peace)
One of the greatest tragedies of the Syria war – other than the hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed, maimed, disappeared, detained and tortured, the economy’s collapse and the destruction of between 60 and 70 percent of the country -- is the growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
More heartrending is the fact the figures will keep growing.
Already, over 1.6 million people have little prospect of going back to their Syria homes in the foreseeable future.
One way or another, being a refugee will affect them for the rest of their life -- ask any Palestinian, 65 years on…
According to UNHCR, one million Syrians took refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt in the six months since December 2012.
“With little prospect of being able to safely return to their homes in the short term and growing hardship in host countries, Syrians face desperate circumstances. At the same time, the governments of the region hosting Syrian refugees and the humanitarian community face an increasingly challenging and complex humanitarian crisis which, beyond refugees' immediate protection and assistance needs, threatens the balance of the entire region,” UNHCR says.
Apart from the 1.6 million people who fled to neighboring countries, some 4.25 million are believed to be displaced within Syria and many more are affected by the war.
What is so baffling, considering the figures, is the apathy of the key international players, chiefly the United States and the European Union countries.
Based on arrival trends since the beginning of the year, UNHCR estimates the number of Syrian refugees in need of assistance across the region may reach 3.45 million by year-end 2013. They will be hosted in camps and, for the most part, in local communities.
In an effort to grapple with what might become the largest refugee crisis ever, the United Nations is asking for a record-breaking $5.1 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighboring host countries.
Each refugee has a tale of horror to cope and live with forevermore.
With the help of British charity Syria Relief, a group of women in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan is coping by sewing and cooking in a DIY workshop.
Alarabiya's Rima Maktabi tries to learn from Umm Imad
Each of the women at the workshop is as busy as a bee. Their eyes hide a thousand tales but they only have time for work – all 20 of them embroidering and cooking to support refugee families and their own.
Alarabiya TV anchor Rima Maktabi toured the camp in Jordan and met the women at their improvised workplace.
When they talk, it is mostly about recollections and the loved ones they lost or left behind.
Umm Imad: I simply want to be by my son's side
Umm Imad seems weighed down by her 60 years. She embroiders clothing to support family and relatives. Her son was killed in Syria. After burying him, she fled to Jordan.
“They can place me in a golden castle after losing my son, but that would mean nothing to me,” she tells Maktabi. ‘I simply want to be by his side, that’s all.”
Some of the dishes the women are preparing
The Syrian women in the Alarabiya video cover their faces and hide their fear. Even in Jordan, they feel the need to protect their own identity in order to save from harm relatives who stayed behind in Syria.
Syrian activist Samara talks to Maktabi who models one of the scarves
Syrian activist Samara says, “When we arrived in Jordan we discovered something called mini projects – meaning you use simple tools to produce something. We didn't want to burden our host society.”
UK-based Syria Relief tries to alleviate the Syrian refugee burden. It set up the women’s workshop to raise money from the sale of its output. The money goes to those in need.
Numerically, this is the largest refugee crisis in the history of the modern Middle East.
Zaatari Syrian refugee camp
In Jordan, more than 100,000 Syrians live in the teeming Zaatari refugee camp, set up in July 2012, now the second largest in the world. But the vast majority has settled in cities and towns around the country. Syrian refugees can now make up fully half the population of some northern cities.
As of mid-January 2013, the UN has registered almost 176,000 refugees in Jordan. The Jordanian government estimates 250,000 have entered the country.
In Lebanon, some 510,000 refugees already make up more than 10 percent of the population. Lebanon has elected not to build refugee camps. So the influx is straining the country's decrepit infrastructure and overwhelming its border towns and villages.
Then there is Turkey. Nearly 400,000 refugees fled to government-funded camps early in the Syrian civil war.
According to a study by Salam Kawakibi, a Syrian political scientist based in Paris, there are some five million internally displaced Syrians within their own country. The majority can today be found in or near Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Deir Ezzor and Idlib.
There are currently almost 70,000 refugees registered with the UNHCR in Iraq. The vast majority reside in the Kurdistan province of Duhok, mostly within Domiz camp -- an autonomous region in the far north of the country.
Syria Relief, which is helping refugees with mini projects, was set up in September 2011 to provide help and support to Syrian families in need, in and outside Syria. 
Syria Relief is a non-political, non-denominational, non-governmental organization, coordinates a number of charitable activities taking place in the UK to provide help and support to Syrian families and individuals in need, in Syria and outside it, irrespective of religion, geographical location, or political persuasion.
The women’s sewing and cooking will certainly help make a difference for some of the refugees around them. But they will be far from the $5.1 billion needed in humanitarian aid.

In a frightening infographic, UNHCR appeals for the $5.1 billion that will help 3.45 million refugees and 6.8 million in need inside Syria -- or a total of 10 million Syrians -- by putting the figure in context. The $5.1 billion apparently is less than

  • Brits spend sprucing up their gardens in a year and
  • Americans spend on ice cream in 32 days!
Will the world be up to the humanitarian aid challenge or will the Syria war go down in history as the point when humanity lost its meaning?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Celebrating al-Isra’ wal Mi’raj today

Today, Thursday, is a public holiday in the UAE and most of the Gulf and Middle East.
Many have been counting down to the long weekend (although I will be working). But very few people I asked knew why we were off work, so I decided to find out.

It is Al-Isra’ wal Mi'raj -- الإسراء والمعراج -- an important observance day in the Muslim calendar. It falls on 27 Rajab in the Hijri calendar, corresponding to 6 June this year.
It marks the two parts of a physical and spiritual night journey that, according to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) took during a single night circa the year 621.
I found a brief sketch of the story in Sura 17 Al-Isra of the Holy Quran. Other details come from the hadiths or supplemental writings about the life of the Prophet.
Surat Al-Isra’ (The Night Journey), also called Surat Bani Isra'eel (Children of Israel), is the 17th chapter of the Quran with 111 verses.
According to the hadith, the journey goes like this:
The Prophet Muhammad travels on the steed Buraq to "the Farthest Mosque,” where he leads other prophets in prayer. He then ascends to Heaven where he speaks to God, who gives Muhammad instructions to take back to the faithful regarding the details of prayer.
The exact location of "the Farthest Mosque” is not specified, although the first verse refers to Muhammad being taken from the “Sacred Mosque” to the “Farthest Mosque”:
Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless -- in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth (all things).
It is generally agreed the “Farthest Mosque” refers to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the “Sacred Mosque” refers to al-Haram in Mecca.
The Sura was revealed in the last year before the Hijra. Its main theme is salat (daily prayers), whose number was fixed at five during the Mi’raj that it alludes to. The Sura also forbids adultery, calls for respect for father and mother and for patience and control in the face of the persecutions the Muslim community was facing at the time.
According to traditions, the journey is associated with Lailat al-Mi'raj, one of the most significant events in the Muslim calendar.
The Night Journey starts with the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel (who was bringing the revelation of the Quran). Gabriel leads Muhammad to a white mule with wings attached to its thighs. This mule had carried other prophets, including Abraham, and was the buraq or spirit horse. Muhammad gets on and goes high into the sky.
He arrives at Jerusalem where he meets many prophets including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The Prophet is quoted as saying Abraham “looked like no one else, but also no one did not look like him.” Moses was “tall, tanned, slim and with a hooked nose and curly hair.” Jesus was “red skinned of medium height with straight hair and many moles on his face.” He also looked like “he had come out of a bath. His hair looked wet although it was not wet.”
Muhammad is asked to lead them in prayer and did.
Three dishes are placed in front of Muhammad containing water, wine and milk. Muhammad said he knew of the prophecy that if he chose water the Muslim community would drown, if he chose wine they would leave the true path, and if he chose milk they would follow the true religion of the one God. He chose milk and drank from it. Gabriel confirmed the prophecy.
Then Muhammad lifts up to the first gate of Heaven guarded by the Angel Ishmael (first son of Abraham) who was in charge of 12,000 more and each of those had 12,000 of their own. All these 144,000,001 angels guarded the one gate. Ishmael asked Gabriel if Muhammad was the one sent to deliver God's message to humankind and Gabriel confirmed this, so Muhammad was let through.
Muhammad passes through seven heavenly realms.
In the First Heaven he sees Adam being shown the souls of his descendents both good and bad.
In the Second Heaven he sees Jesus and John, son of Zachariah.
In the Third Heaven he sees Joseph, son of Jacob.
In the Fourth Heaven he sees Idris, the prophet from before the flood.
In the Fifth Heaven he sees Moses' older brother, Harun, with his long white beard.
In the Sixth Heaven Muhammad meets a tall man with a hooked nose and Gabriel says it is Moses.
In the Seventh Heaven Muhammad sees an old man seated by the gate to Paradise where 70,000 angels pass through each day but do not return until Judgment Day. Gabriel identifies him as Abraham.
Gabriel then takes Muhammad into Paradise where he speaks to God who tells him the importance of regular prayers.
On the way back Moses asks how many prayers have been commanded and Muhammad says 50 a day. Moses tells him to go back to God and get the number cut. God reduces the number to 10 a day but Moses again says this is too many. Muhammad returns to God and they are reduced to five times a day. Moses says this is still too many, but Muhammad tells Moses he is too embarrassed to return to God again.
The Prophet is also shown Sidrat al-Muntaha (a Lote Tree of the utmost boundary [Quran 53:14]). He says, “I saw its Nabk fruits which resembled the clay jugs of Hajr (near Medina) and its leaves were like the ears of elephants and four rivers originated at its root -- two of them were apparent and two were hidden. I asked Gabriel about those rivers and he said, 'The two hidden rivers are in Paradise and the apparent ones are the Nile and the Euphrates’.”
Sidrat al-Muntaha marks the end of the Seventh Heaven, the boundary where no creation can pass, according to Muslim beliefs.
Muhammad then returns to Mecca.
When he describes his journey to followers, many don’t believe he had gone to Jerusalem in one night, seen the Seven Heavens and had spoken with God.
Some of the disbelievers went to Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (one of the senior companions – Sahabi -- and father-in-law of Muhammad and the first Muslim Caliph following Muhammad's death).
Abu Bakr asked the Prophet to describe Jerusalem. He did and Abu Bakr declared all the details were accurate and so Muhammad must have been there.
Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.
Quran, Chapter 17 (Al-Isra), Verse 1
So today, we celebrate the miracle of Al-Isra’ wal Mi’raj, the night journey and ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Have a wonderful day and enjoy the long weekend.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

13 most beautiful things in the world

A couple of days ago, my friend Mher Krikorian (@krikOrianm) asked on Twitter: “What is the most beautiful thing in the world?”
My fingers immediately went to my keyboard to answer, then I got thinking there would be so many more than could be listed in 140 characters.
I didn’t notice any replies, at least on the timeline Mher and I share.
I have been mulling it over since and kept adding to the list. There are so many beautiful things.
It was a good exercise to get away from all the news of violence and drums of war and focus on appreciation.
My immediate thought went to places, but although well traveled, it would be presumptuous in such a large universe.
Here are a few of the “things” that for me are the most beautiful in the world:
  1. Kindness
  2. Generosity of spirit and largesse
  3. A smile
  4. The love and protection of siblings
  5. The love given and returned to the special one
  6. Books
  7. Birdsong
  8. The sun
  9. Nature
  10. The sea
  11. Pink Floyd
  12. My home
  13. Good health
I could go on and on…
What do you consider the most beautiful thing in the world?
I have disabled comments on Mich Café due to the large amount of advertising spam. But you can contribute your “most beautiful things” on Facebook or Twitter.